Caveat Emptor… Unless It’s Free

As I have been working to create UbD plans over the last couple of days, a couple of things have become glaringly obvious to me.

The first is that the quality of available study guides and teachers’ guides varies widely.  Most of them only have a handful of “good” lesson plans.  What I mean by “good” is that I can use the plans without too much modification for my students, it is sufficiently challenging for high school, and it doesn’t involve too much of what I think of as “fluffy” work.   I am totally all for using what I can without reinventing the wheel.  My English Education professors encouraged us to steal, steal, steal.  This was back in the day when listservs were well-populated and would have been great for teachers to share ideas, but teachers weren’t on them, and it was well before the age of blogs, wikis, webquests, etc.  Our best source for ideas, if I recall, was ERIC.  I had to create entire units by myself, stealing where I could, but mostly finding I had to buy anything that was really helpful (Perfection Learning units, Shakespeare Set Free, Novel Guides, etc.)  It was a pain, and I envy new teachers for the fact that they have access to the Internet with this wealth of ideas.  It must be much easier to create plans now than it used to be.

I have found some challenge, however, in finding lessons that are sufficiently challenging.  They are indeed out there, but the best way to find them seems to be real search-engine savvy rather than anything else.  I have not often found that huge repositories of plans have too much to offer.  It’s rare for me to find something usable in those kinds of places, and those I find usually need to be modified somewhat.  Sometimes, for instance, I find parts of the assignment interesting, but most of it is “fluff.”  There seems to be a lot of Shakespeare fluff out there.  I know the current thinking is to teach through performance, and while I do some of that, I think most of the unit plans I’ve seen depend on performance for almost all assessment, and that makes me uncomfortable.  I think the biggest reason why is that I dislike roleplaying myself.  I loathe it when I’m asked to roleplay situations for professional development, for instance.  I never minded doing it for school too much, I guess, but I find lessons in which students have to dig into the language through close-reading text study more compelling.  Students are invariably not attuned enough to Shakespeare’s language to act it out, and I find sharing professional performances more valuable for their learning.

I know plenty of people will disagree with me on the performance aspect of teaching Shakespeare; it seems to be the prevailing wisdom that students need to act out the whole play, complete with costumes and promptbook, in order to understand it.  I would feel different, I’m sure, if I were a drama teacher or had a drama background.  Still, I have never had complaints about not doing performance.

A perfect case in point — something I’d never do again — was something my supervising teacher and I did together in our Romeo and Juliet unit.  It came straight out of Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The idea is that students create masks to wear to class and they learn an Elizabethan dance similar to one that Romeo and Juliet might have danced when they met.  To me, 10 years after I did this with a class, this seems fluffy in the extreme.  We weren’t digging into the text at all.  We weren’t reading about it or writing about it.  On the other hand, some great activities can be found in the same section of the book.  For example, a great activity which asks students to really figure out language is the Love Connection handout on p. 133 of the book.  Students not only have to interpret the text, but also what the text says about the character’s attitude or beliefs, which is a great way for students to move from simple decoding to understanding.  What I am essentially getting at (but it took me this long, blathering the whole time, to figure out how to say it) is that many assignments you’ll find online or in these kinds of unit plan books are activity-based and not authentic assessments, to borrow the language of UbD.  Students have fun, but don’t really learn what you are trying to get them to learn.  I sure had a lot of pretty masks for my bulletin board, and we had fun goofing around in a big circle, dancing, but I don’t think either activity really did much to advance our students’ understanding of Romeo and Juliet, and so many performance-based lesson plans tend to look suspiciously like that lesson.

The great thing about what is available is that you generally don’t have to pay for it, so you’re not out $20 or so after purchasing a book of useless activities.  If you are planning to buy a book, see if there’s a way to look through it to see if it’s useful before you purchase it.  It will probably be worth it if you can use some of the lessons year after year, especially if handouts are provided.

[tags]ubd, shakespeare, lesson plans, unit plans[/tags]

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6 thoughts on “Caveat Emptor… Unless It’s Free

  1. I usually check the book out in the bookstore, then order it cheaper on Amazon, where I have free shipping. I also look at other teachers' books, read reviews online and pay careful attention when I go to the NCTE convention every year, when I make my rounds in the exhibitor hall.

  2. I try to look, but many bookstores' education sections are sparse at best, and sometimes you can't look through it at Amazon. That's why your suggestion about reading reviews and going through other teachers' books is great.

    I haven't been to NCTE since 1998 (I think?). It was in Nashville that year; I do remember that. I had a great time and learned a lot, particularly in the Shakespeare class I took the day after the regular sessions ended. And I got to meet Jane Yolen, Karen Cushman, Bruce Coville, and Avi!

  3. I sometimes find good stuff on Edsitement.

    NCTE's ReadWriteThink can be good, too.

    MarcoPolo, , searches a lot of the lesson sites, which is handy.

  4. I wondered about that very activity that you mention from Shakespeare Set Free, but these days I think things like that are handy to have around in case a class earns an incentive, or at least a break…just in case.:o) It has more meaning than a "popcorn party" at least.

  5. I totally agree with you. I'm only a second year teacher and most of the books in the "Education" section at Borders and other Bookstores if full of crap. I've come to the conclusion that the most valuable and relevant ideas come from other HS English Teachers. I love Jim Burke, and other authors from Heinemann.

  6. It is (partly) for this reason that I have no qualms whatsoever about bringing a binder to B&N and ordering a hot chocolate and spending several hours studying and taking notes.

    (And, also, I'm cheap. *g*)

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